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Breaking The Chain, by Willy Voet

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Title: Breaking The Chain: Drugs And Cycling - The True Story
Willy Voet (with Pierre Ballester, trans by William Fotheringham)
Yellow Jersey Press
Random House
1999 (trans: 2001)
What it is:
The English-language version of Voet's post-Festina confessional, Massacre à la Chaîne.
Strengths: It's a real insider's take on the dark side of cycling through the seventies, eighties and nineties.
Weaknesses: Most foreign books lose something in translation, this one even more so.

Massacre a la chaine

Is Breaking The Chain an important book? Here's the take of William Fotheringham, in his translator's note to the book: "Events have moved on since [Massacre à la Chaîne] was published in France in May 1999. But Voet's inside view of the ways of cycling leading up to the [Festina] scandal remains vitally important if we are to understand the pressures which lead sportsmen to take drugs, the lies they tell themselves to justify their drug-taking, and the way in which drug-taking makes a nonsense of the notion of a level sporting field. [...] Breaking The Chain is part of a process of change which, it is to be hoped, will lead to a cleaner sport."

A lot of people have disagreed with such a positive assessment of the book's merits. Many riders and former riders have been critical of it. Spitting in the soup is rarely appreciated. Voet was accused of bringing the sport into disrepute. Not for his years of administering dope but for so publicly admitting to his crimes. Pat McQuaid, since the original publication of Paul Kimmage's confessional, A Rough Ride, nearly a decade before Voet's book, has consistently been critical of such books, believing that cycling's dirty linen should not be washed in public. Such stories should only be told behind the closed doors of a room in Aigle. Presumably so they can be quietly swept under the carpet. The way the UCI tried to hide the story Jesús Manzano took to them.

Of the riders who have criticised Voet's book, Allan Peiper is the only one I've come across who - in A PeIper's Tale - offered a novel reason as to why the book shouldn't have been published: he became aware of a young rider who went through Voet's book and used it as a guide to what to try. Certainly Breaking The Chain reads like a pharmacist's directory in places - or maybe the Dummy's Guide To Doping - the way Voet drops the names of the drugs he used over the course of his career. You have amphetamines, bromide, caffeine, cocaine, cortisone, creatine, ephedrine, EPO, heroin, HGH, IGF, insulin, mestolerone, nandrolone, steroids and testosterone, along with named products such as Anémine, Asaflow, Berevine, Captagon, Clenbuterol, Coltramyl, Decca-Dorabulin, Diprostene, Hexacine, Interlukin, Inzitan, Kenacort, Lidocaine, Medrol, Normison, Perivitin, Solucamphre, Soludecadron, Synacten, Synocortil, Thiocticide, Tonedron and Trinitrin. Quite a witch's brew.

My own view is that cycling needs books like Breaking The Chain. Voet's book has played an important role in the process of change cycling has gone through over the past decade, at the least insofar as it opened the eyes of many fans and journalists who would have happily slipped back into denial and dismissed l'Affaire Festina as being the excesses of a few rotten apples. But while Voet's book helped change the way in which the sport was seen by fans and reported by the media, it didn't change much in the peloton or in the governing of the sport. It took until Manzano took his story to the Spanish guardia civil, resulting in Operaçion Puerto, before the peloton really sat up, took notice of the problem and began to alter its course. Change comes dripping slow.

So yes, Breaking The Chain was an important book. But is it still an important book, one people who have come to the sport in more recent years should read? That's a harder question to answer. In its bastardised English-language version, in which legalistic circumlocution has hidden the identities of people Voet happily identified in the original French version, Breaking The Chain is not a particularly enjoyable read. Not because of the story it tells but for the way in which the story is told. In fact, it would be fair to say, it's kind of boring. But mercifully it is brief. Three hours' reading, tops. Four if you insist on stopping for coffee. You could comfortably read it during the dull middle bit of most races.

Set against its stylistic inadequacies though is its content. And some of that is - sadly - still as relevant as it was when the book was first published. Consider the story Voet tells of a new drug he added to his pharmacopoeia in 1996. Voet kept notebooks in which he recorded what drugs he dispensed to whom during his time administering Festina's doping programme. These notebooks were written in code: "X for a dose of EPO, underlined in red; Z, for growth hormone, underlined in blue or green." This new drug was given the code of P.

P was a cheap anabolic, a powerful hormone normally used to develop muscle mass but, banned from the French market, hard to get hold of. Festina imported it from Spain. To assess P's effects precisely, Voet used a guinea-pig - himself: "Before the Dauphiné Libéré in 1996, I took ten pills over seven days, then urinated conscientiously into a jar from days five to eight after taking the final pill. The whole works was then sent to a laboratory in Ghent. The [drug] had been eliminated from my system by day eight. For a cyclist, who will get rid of chemicals far more quickly than someone sedentary like me, the period was still shorter."

So now he knew how long P could be tested for. But what of its effects? They, Voet discovered firsthand, were felt almost immediately: "Three hours after I took the first pill, I began shivering. I had the impression my lungs were swelling, that I had a new battery somewhere in the system. I felt confident, full of energy, strong as a bull - on hormones. The effects lasted more than a month, effects which we used with good results in the big Tours after that."

Voet's riders were administered this new drug: "It was for this reason that in 1996 some French and Swiss riders did not compete in their national championships. Right then, they were in the middle of their [P] courses, and the only disastrous effects would have been those felt at the drug tests during the championships. The official reason given was a virus circulating in the team, which, according to the press, was giving us a lot of concern coming up to the Tour de France. In actual fact, the whole team was at a training camp in the Pyrenees."

The drug? Clenbuterol.

* * * * *

Breaking the chain

Not all of Voet's stories are dope-related. There are moments of light relief. There's a story from the 1979 Tour of Germany, where one of the Flandria riders, Albert Van Vlierberghe, couldn't be bothered riding up a big hill a few kilometres into one stage. So he hopped into Voet's car and they set off a quarter of an hour ahead of the race, stopping atop the hill. Van Vlierberghe hid beside a barn and joined the race as it passed, slipping in between the break and the peloton. He then caught the break and finished fifth or sixth on the stage. It's the sort of stunt you wouldn't get away with in a real race though, isn't it?

You'd hope so, but take a related tale from the Ronde Van Vlaanderen. The nature of the course means fans can cut across the course and see the race several times. But one year that helped one rider - unidentified in the English version of the book - knock eighty kilometres off the course and finish second.

Which story brings me round to the way lawyers have robbed Breaking The Chain of some of the revelations of the French original. To be fair to Fotheringham and the people at Yellow Jersey Press, it should be noted that the British have pretty tough libel laws, as David Walsh and his Sunday Times editor, Alan English, discovered a few years after Breaking The Chain was published. I may not like the manner in which the book has been censored but I do understand why it happened. Given the choice between this bowdlerised version, nothing and Yellow Jersey Press being sued out of existence, I know what I'd choose.

The problem though with this self-censorship is that it makes the book dull. Putting names to stories makes them more interesting, more relevant. The stories fit into the greater narrative you carry around in your head. For instance, Breaking The Chain  tells a story from the 1982 GP des Nations about Bert Oosterbosch (who's openly named in Fotheringham's version of the book, having died in 1989 and being beyond the help of even British libel law). I'll come back to the story in a moment but what's relevant here is that you'll have a name to it. You may not know who Oosterbosch was, you may not even know what the GP des Nations was (it used to be the unofficial time trial championships, a long TT around Cannes, until the UCI added the TT to the Worlds, killing a Classic) but the story will lodge in your memory somewhere. And when you come across Oosterbosch in another story - say, if I ever get round to writing about the Irish annexation of Paris-Nice in the eighties, in which story he'd have a bit part - you'll remember the story Voet told about him. Two stories will knit together to form a larger story.

Consider that Ronde tale mentioned earlier. Wouldn't it work better if you knew who the unnamed rider was, so you could mentally cross-reference the tale with other stories you know about him? Or take the tale of "a great one-day Classic specialist" who used a condom full of urine hidden up his bum in order to beat the dope controllers when he won another edition of the Ronde. Without his name, that story just doesn't fit anywhere. Unlike the condom full of urine, I guess.

As well as making the book duller, the pointlessness of some of this censorship deserves to be pointed out. Breaking The Chain basically has a twin-narrative structure, with each strand running more or less chronologically. The main strand starts shortly before Voet's arrest en route to Dublin for the start of the 1998 Tour de France and follows through the aftermath of his incarceration. The other strand flashes back to episodes from his rise through the ranks of cycling's soigneurs, from his youth in the amateur ranks (he rode and won races in his teens and early twenties), where he was first introduced to doping (amphetamines and testosterone), through to his years managing the muscles of many of cycling's greats, starting with Flandria in the late seventies, moving on through Marc Zeep Centrale and Daf Trucks before working for Jean de Gribaldy's squads through the eighties, RMO in the late eighties and early nineties and Festina through the rest of the nineties.

Once you know who was riding for what team when, it becomes easy enough to put back in the names the lawyers sought to hide (though obviously it becomes impossible to put back in the stories which have been totally excised). Take the Ronde story about the winner with the condom of urine. Voet tells us how he learned that tactic while at Marc Zeep Centrale. By the time he finished with Daf Trucks at the end of 1981 the testers were aware of it. To put a name to the story, all you need is a list of Ronde winners.

Or there's a somewhat funny story from the 1979 Tour, when one of Voet's charges - he's at Flandria at the time and the rider is described as "a former champion who had been brought low by imbibing too much magic potion" - took some amphetamines to help get up Alpe d'Huez. This only a year after Flandria's Michel Pollentier had been chucked off the race only hours after donning the maillot jaune, having been caught trying to pass someone else's urine in the dope control. Voet warned this rider - "Watch out, you know. This isn't a village fête, it's the Tour. You might be picked for a random test." - but his warning was laughed off: "That's about as likely as a pigeon crapping on my head as I leave the hotel." The former champ got up the Alpe - he wasn't a particularly competent climber, which was his excuse for charging-up - and yes, you guessed it, got picked for a random control.

So now Voet needed to help him beat the dope control. But how? Pollentier had made this more difficult, the testers were supposed to be more vigilant. A flask of urine hidden in his shorts was decided upon. But the doctor overseeing the dope control was too conscientious to fall for that. When the rider's wife learned what was happening she laughed - "That'll teach him!" - but then threw a faint, outside the dope control. Conscientious as the doctor was, he turned his attention to the wife, while Voet passed the flask of urine to the husband. Chalk up another one for the dopers.

Then there's a story from his RMO years - 1989 to 1992 - when "a good little rider" who, Voet reckoned, never tried anything except this once, was doing well in Paris-Nice. He asked for some cortisone to help him on the Col d'Eze time trial and finished in the first five. Or, on another Paris-Nice, there was another RMO rider who used Synocortil two days out from the finish and won the stage, which had a mountain-top finish. All you need is stage-by-stage stats for Paris-Nice.

Or, as I noted in a previous piece, you know who Voet was talking about when he discussed a clean Vuelta a España winner, and you know who he was talking about when he mentioned a rider who got busted because of a drug his mechanic took. You can also identify the rider who, having ridden himself into the Tour's yellow jersey "was in trouble. He needed some help to hang on to the lead and we decided on an injection of Synacten Delayed [Synacten stimulates the adrenal glands, making them produce cortisone]. As the rider said, 'On the Tour I don't mess with anything forbidden.' In his eyes, and in all our eyes, that meant detectable drugs."

Voet chose the wrong drug and his rider had a real jour sans: "The next day the rider was incapable of holding a wheel and was left behind on the smallest hill - and there were a lot of those because the stage went right through the Pyrenees. He lost the yellow jersey that day. This mistake earned me the nickname 'blocker,' and those kind of nicknames stick to you for a long time. Years later on there were still people who were taking the mickey about this blunder. That year, as it happened, was a year with no big star dominant in the Tour and in such an open race the rider could have aspired to overall victory." The context of this story? Voet's days with Jean de Gribaldy.

Not all of the stories in Breaking The Chain are as open to easy reconstruction. Sometimes the temporal context simply isn't there and it's less clear who is being discussed. To put names to some of the unnamed riders from unidentified teams in unspecified races you have to be armed with extra information. Take the first Ronde story from above, the unnamed rider who shaved eighty kilometres off the course and finished second. One helpful bit of information stayed in Fotheringham's version of the book: this rider had a brother who was also a pro and racing at the time. So to put a name to that story you need a list of people who finished on the podium in the Ronde and the knowledge of which of those who finished second also had a brother riding at the same time. Pairs of cycling brothers are rare. How many can you think of? Today there's the Schlecks, Fränk and Andy. In the early nineties there were the Roches, Stephen and Laurence and the Madiots, Marc and Yvon. In the late eighties there where the Mentheors, Erwinn and Pierre Henri. In the early eighties there were the Planckaerts, Eddy and Walter.

Sometimes though the extra information isn't available via Google. You have to wait for pieces of the jigsaw to fall into place. Earlier this year, reading Laurent Fignon's autobiography, We Were Young And Carefree, I wasn't overly thrilled by his own doping confessions, feeling they didn't go very far. Take the story Fignon told about the time he was prepping for the GP des Nations, took amphetamines to get him through a wet Wednesday training ride and got busted at a minor race the following weekend, when the drug hadn't flushed from his system as quick as he thought it would. Where, I wondered at the time, had Fignon got the amphetamines? Did he simply have a stock of them in a kitchen cupboard, there to be called upon when he needed a pick-me-up? Re-reading Breaking The Chain this week, with Fignon's story lodged in my memory, maybe Voet holds the missing jigsaw piece.

Breaking The Chain tells a story about "the unfortunate fate of a good French cyclist." Voet tells us that "I have always felt rather responsible for this episode. Four days earlier, on the Tuesday, we had talked on the phone. The rider's motivation level was down, particularly because the lousy weather forecast for the next day meant his long training ride could well be an unpleasant affair. In a jokey tone of voice, I offered to make him a dose of amphetamines to make the seven-hours pass more quickly." The rider accepted the offer, went for his training ride the next day and then raced on the Saturday, only to get pulled for a random drug test: "In theory, there was no risk as he had taken the amphetamines some three days before and his body should have expelled them, but he still tested positive and was punished. The chances are that if he had urinated and then drunk a few pints of water before giving his sample, so that the urine he provided was highly dilute, he would have got through the test."

Maybe that's the secret pleasure of Breaking The Chain, breaking the code. But, to be honest, I can't even be arsed trying to crack the codes in a Dan Brown thriller. Immediate gratification, that's what I want. But if you're curious about the history of doping in our sport, if you want to understand why riders do the things they do and how they get away with it so often and for so long, I do think that Breaking The Chain is a book you should probably read. Even with the names of some of the guilty redacted.

* * * * *


One of the good things about the stories in Breaking The Chain is that some of them illustrate how doping doesn't always have the desired effect. In addition to the Tour story above, you have the one featuring Bert Oosterbosch. As well as being a pretty good road rider, Oosterbosch was also a track pursuit champion. On the road, you could bet on him in time trials. But in the 1982 GP des Nations he just didn't seem to be firing on all cylinders. At the first time check he was eighteenth, a minute and a half down. But slowly he pulled himself into contention. At halfway he was eleventh. With fifteen klicks to go, he was fourth. In the end he finished third. Voet's explanation? "The Synacten Immediate he had taken shortly before the start had actually made him go more slowly, but even though he needed both feet to get one pedal to move, he didn't panic. The Synacten just kicked in an hour late, but it was one hour too late for him to win the race."

The truth is, Voet was one of the sport's witch-doctors, he was working on knowledge handed down through the ages - sometimes from other soigneurs, other times from riders themselves - topped up with experience gained. The best experience requires making mistakes. Try this, try that, try the other and see what happens. Experimentation was the culture of the sport at the time. Experimentation has been part of the culture of our sport from the beginning of its history. How much that culture has changed is open to debate. Look at what is happening in the lower echelons of the sport today and you have to ask if it has changed at all.

So sometimes the drugs could turn thoroughbreds into carthorses. And - in the pre-EPO era - it's fair to say they didn't work in reverse, they didn't turn carthorses into thoroughbreds. But - when they worked - they did their job. And, contrary to a rather romantic view held by some, the drugs weren't about just dulling the pain and getting you through a day in the saddle. They were about making you win. Especially in the eighties, when doping reached new heights, with increased reliance on hormones, especially cortisone and testosterone. Voet tells plenty of tales to back that up.

There is also the view held by some - often the same romantics who believe pre-EPO doping was just about dulling pain - that everyone was doping, so tales of who was doing what back then hardly matter. But not everyone was doping. There were riders like Gilles Delion and Charly Mottet who rode à l'eau. (You've also got Christophe Bassons, Patrice Halgand and Laurent Lefevre, who survived their time at Festina without being sucked into the doping programme.) And these riders suffered because of the doping of others. This is the point David Walsh tries to make, that doping steals from those who try to compete clean.

Yes - as Kimmage claims in A Rough Ride - dopers were themselves victims, victims of a sport run by people who were hypocrites when it came to implementing their own rules. For evidence of that hypocrisy look to the case Christophe Moreau. He won the Critérium International in 1998 but tested positive for mestolerone. Voet discovered that Moreau had received the drug from a soigneur on another team. Three months later, Moreau started the Tour. The UCI felt that, because he was appealing his case, he ought be allowed ride until the appeal was heard.

That's bad enough, but here's something Voet didn't offer, a statement from then UCI supremo Hein Verbruggen, issued during the 1998 Tour, just before the Festina riders were finally chucked off the race: "We already had our doubts about the [Festina] team over the case of Christophe Moreau's positive test in [March] for anabolic steroids, which [Festina directeur sportif Bruno] Roussel told me personally was the fault of a soigneur. However, our inquiries suggested it was more that just the soigneur who was involved, and in any case it is more the environment that the soigneur works in than the person himself which must be questioned. Sadly, our suspicions look to have been confirmed by what has happened."

The UCI had reason to be more than suspicious about Festina. Look to the World Championships from the year before, 1997. A Festina rider, Laurent Brochard, won the race. He returned a positive for Lidocaine. How do you get away with something like that? The Worlds are, after all, organised by the UCI itself. Easy. You submit a back-dated therapeutic use exemption form. Which, even though TUE's are supposed to be submitted before the event, the UCI accepted blithely. Making a positive disappear really is that easy.

So yes, the system certainly didn't discourage doping. And those who doped can be seen as being victims of such a system. But those victims were themselves victimising others. Take Mottet. When it comes to him, Voet knows what he's talking about. He worked alongside the French star, when they were both at RMO: "You could honestly say that Mottet was a victim of drug-taking. If he had used some stuff to help him recover, perhaps only now and then, the list of races which he won - already a long one - would have been considerably longer. Who knows if he might not have won the Tour? [...] It really has to be said that Charly simply did not have the career that he merited."

But Mottet and Delion were among the lucky ones when it comes to being victims of doping. Breaking The Chain closes with this: "It may perhaps never be proven that doping causes deaths. But the opposite will never be proven either. So I think of all the riders whose hearts just gave up: the Spaniard Vicente Lopez-Carril, dead at thirty-seven; the Belgian Marc de Meyer, dead at thirty-two; the Belgian Gert de Walle, dead at twenty-four; the Dutchman Bert Oosterbosch, dead at thirty-two; the Pole Joachim Halupczok, dead at twenty-seven; Paul Haghedooren, once champion of Belgium, dead at thirty-eight; the Dutchwoman Connie Meijer, dead at twenty-five." Breaking The Chain ends with a question: "How many more lives must be lost before the sport of cycling faces up to its nemesis and finally comes clean?"

The answer to that is not pretty. Between the original publication of Massacre à la Chaîne and the first real signs of change in the aftermath of Operaçion Puerto, the toll of deaths kept rising. There were Alessio Galletti, dead at thirty-five; Michael Zanoli dead at thirty-five; José Maria Jiménez Sastre dead at thirty-two; Denis Zanette dead at thirty-two; Stive Vermout dead at twenty-eight; Marco Rusconi, dead at twenty-four; Fabrice Solanson dead at twenty-three; Johan Sermon, dead at twenty-one; Kenny Vanstreels, dead at twenty; and Marco Ceriani, dead at sixteen. More will die in the years ahead, their past catching up with them. Maybe their deaths will help keep our sport on the path toward a cleaner future, serve as a reminder of a past we are hopefully leaving behind us.